Tribeca: 'Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia' Filmmaker on the Late Author's Life and Legacy (Q&A)
NEW YORK -- Gore Vidal once said, "All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world." Judging by the man's legendary life and career that spanned nearly nine decades (he died at 86 in 2012), the man many revere as one of America's last great intellectuals milked every second of it.
In Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, Australian filmmaker Nicholas Wrathall used his all-access pass to intimately explore nearly every aspect of the late author's life and career, from his tumultuous youth as the son of a politician to becoming one of America's premiere provocateurs.
The documentary, which premiered last week at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, is a candid portrait of the famed author comprised of archival photos and video from Vidal's personal collection, conversations with a number of his close friends, and interviews with Vidal that spanned the final seven years of his life. It's interspersed with a number of Vidal's quotable prose and explores the many facets that shaped his life, including his political aspirations, Hollywood ambitions (he wrote the original screenplay to 1979's Caligula, among others) and continued legacy.
Wrathall spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in New York during the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his experience chronicling the last years of Vidal's life, what was and was not off-limits, his notable interview with Christopher Hitchens months before his death, and why the youth of today could learn a thing or two from the late author's life and work.
The Hollywood Reporter: What prompted the idea of making a documentary on Gore Vidal?
Nicholas Wrathall: I met Gore through his nephew, (writer/director) Burr Steers. I was really excited about Gore's politics and what he was saying, especially right after 9/11 when it was all just media towing the line to go to war. And Gore was so outspoken against it. I had a few conversations with him initially when I first met him and then in following up, I found out that he was moving out of his house in Ravello, Italy, [in 2004] where he’d lived virtually his entire life. I decided to rush over there and capture that moment of him leaving the house. I was literally there for the last weekend. That scene in the film is the last time he saw his Italian home.
THR: Was that where the idea that this footage could possibly become a film came from?
Wrathall: Yes. We decided that I should go [to Italy] and capture that moment. I knew that Howard [Austen, his long-time partner] had died recently and Burr had mentioned that Gore just wasn’t the same. I’d been talking to Gore for a while [by this point], doing some interviews, but I hadn’t really planned out a whole film. But after I realized the door was open and we did the first interviews and shot Ravello, I just thought we can’t miss this opportunity.
THR: How did you maintain your access and relationship with Vidal?
Wrathall: After [Ravello], I started keeping in touch with him and his assistants and asked them when something interesting was going on with Gore. I visited him in his home [in Los Angeles] occasionally, doing small interviews. I also went on a couple trips with him, like the trip to Venice, Italy, with Mikhail Gorbachev to a political forum. I went to New York and D.C. with him. I also went on a trip to Cuba with him that didn’t make it into the movie.
THR: The film begins in dramatic fashion with Vidal standing and reminiscing at the foot of what would eventually be his gravesite, next to his life partner, Austen. Whose idea was it to go there and what was it like to witness such a personal and poignant moment?
Wrathall: It was amazing. He was very reflective and trying to be lighthearted about it, talking about how he had lots of friends here and all of that. But it was also quite eerie and Shakespearean too with this man standing over his own grave reminiscing on his life and death and his partner, Howard. The idea came about when we were in D.C. together. I was saying let’s go and do a few things, maybe visit where he grew up. And he was like, 'Oh, I don’t want to go there, but we could go to my gravesite.' And I was like, 'Great! Let’s go!' We set it up in that way to capture it and make it more dramatic. That opening scene though, in the edit, we had a lot of back and forth on whether it was going to work, whether it was too much to open the film with. Some people thought it did and some people didn’t. Then we tested it a few times with small groups of friends, and there would always be one or two people that thought it was weird, but there’d always be three or four people who thought it was great.
THR: Vidal's early family life was tumultuous. He had a difficult relationship with his mother, a respectful, if distant, one with his father, and he idolized his maternal grandfather, senator Thomas Gore. How open was he in talking about his family?
Wrathall: He did talk to me a little bit about his father. He made some joke about how he and his father had a great relationship because he never asked his father for money. He always supported himself and his father respected him for that. From his early childhood, his parents were separated [in 1935] and suddenly he’s with his grandparents, back and forth, pulled between the different parents at different stages. He had this tumultuous relationship with his mother that ran throughout his life. He did talk about that more, especially in that limousine ride that you see in the film for a minute. Even after she was gone, he didn’t really have anything good to say about her. You could see it really tore him up.
THR: Coming from a family of politicians, it was clear from how his childhood is examined in the film that Vidal had the ingredients for incredible success as an adult.
Wrathall: Yeah. I thought it was really important to establish the film in terms of his roots and where he was coming from, so that you saw that he was very proud of his family. His grandfather had looked out for him as a child and because he was blind, Gore had read to him things like senate papers as a young teen and he’d also met a lot of other politicians as a very young boy. He told me a story about [Louisiana senator] Huey Long coming around to his grandfather’s house for dinner and giving this huge speech about how he was going to modernize Louisiana, then going to the Senate the next day with his grandfather and Long giving the same speech. And he realized that he was just practicing that night at dinner. So he grew up around this, hence the way he spoke.
THR: It seemed that everything out of Vidal's mouth carried tremendous weight, which made him an excellent political candidate, a part of his life that seems to be overlooked by the fact he was such a prolific writer.
Wrathall: I think he had big political aspirations of his own. He had this choice in life where he could have pursued that 100 percent and probably then he wouldn’t have been able to be as free as he was in his writing and be as outspoken as he was as a public intellectual. He tried to balance both for a time and then I think he realized he had to concentrate on his writing. That was his real passion. But I think he always felt like he belonged in that political realm, which he’d grown up in, his grandfather had groomed him for it, and that ultimately could have been his destiny. I think it was important to show that he had these two forays into politics, one in the ‘60s and one in the ‘80s, and that in their own ways, they were successful.
THR: But there was certainly juxtaposition with his political ambitions and his innate ability to be brutally honest, which, some would think, would conflict with each other.
Wrathall: Yeah, he was honest. And he’d been groomed by his grandfather to be honest. Ethically, he was a very strong man. His grandfather opposed entering World War I and lost his seat in the Senate for years because of that. Then he was reelected, but was always known as a very honest man. And Gore was brought up that way. So he felt his way of being honest from outside the system was to point out all the faults and point out what people were really up to and what their motivations were. And sort of expose the 'inside of the Beltway,' so to speak.
THR: Vidal had countless relationships with so many legendary political and entertainment figures.
Wrathall: Yeah, it’s incredible. You think of this man who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and J.F.K. and then later in life became friends with Mikhail Gorbachev, you couldn’t have a bigger political spectrum. I’m from Australia, and he knew the ex-Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, and the premier of my state New South Wales, Bob Carr, really well. When I found that out, I was just stunned that even in far-flung Australia, he knew these people. They visited him in Italy and had phone conversations and talked politics.
He was a very engaged person who wanted to know what was going on in every aspect of the world. He studied history and philosophy and he knew everyone. It was exciting for him. He wanted to know what people were doing. He had such a thirst for knowledge that he needed to know what everyone was doing everywhere all the time. It’s insane to think, but he managed to keep up before the Internet with all these people all over the world.
THR: Did you get access to his writing method? There’s one great scene where he talks about buying the Ravello house, saying there was nothing there except for a table and a chair, and he quips, "That’s all a writer needs."
Wrathall: I talked to him a bit about it and he would talk about it occasionally. As I understood it, his method was doing a lot of primary source research. And in his novels, for example in Burr and Lincoln, whenever Abraham Lincoln was speaking in the novel, he would try and only use primary sources, so actually things that he said. He was very fact-based. Then he would invent other narrative characters around them. But the prime characters were very, very well researched. And he only used primary sources. From what I understand, he wrote on these yellow legal pads by hand and had an assistant type it up. Then he would rewrite and cross things out, add and edit. He wrote longhand on legal pads for his novels. For his essays, he wrote on that old typewriter [featured in the film].
THR: You also touch upon Vidal's turbulent relationship with the late Christopher Hitchens, whom you interviewed for the film months before his death. Hitchens was deemed to be Vidal's literary successor and then they had a tremendous falling out.
Wrathall: Yeah, it was about six months before he died. But he was in incredibly good spirits still. When I came in, he was sitting at his computer. He had a full ashtray. He had a glass of whiskey. He wasn’t changing his ways. He was enthused to talk about Gore. At first, it was all about their feud and their falling out and he kept asking me why Gore hadn’t responded to any of his [correspondence] or his article in Vanity Fair. Then I started to slowly steer him back in the interview towards when they had been close and asked him how he saw Gore when he was a young writer. He was very enthusiastic about Gore. It was an interesting time. I was sitting there with this man that I’ve always been interested in, Hitchens, and realizing he probably wasn’t going to be around for that long. But to be honest, because of his energy, I thought he had maybe another year or two, three, four or five. Suddenly, six months later, he was gone. But I believe, honestly, [their falling out] had a lot to do with the fact that Hitchens supported the Iraq War, which Gore was appalled by. If it had been something less affronting to Gore, he probably would have accepted him back at some point. But I think he saw him as a traitor after that.
THR: Was there anything that Vidal didn’t want to talk about?
Wrathall: He didn’t like talking about his personal life very much. It was hard to get him to talk about Howard. I think because he was still grieving. He’d talk about most things off-camera, but on camera, he’d be a little more protective about his sexuality in terms of who he’d had affairs with and whatever else. Off-camera, he’d say everything. (laughs)
THR: What's also fascinating about Vidal is the fact that he was never really defined as a gay writer.
Wrathall: No. From his perspective, he didn’t describe himself as a gay writer. He saw himself as a writer. His line is, 'There’s no such thing as homosexual. There are only homosexual acts. And I performed certain homosexual acts. It doesn’t make me homosexual.' In his eyes, we’re all people. He didn’t want to be labeled in any way. But he didn’t hide it either; he just didn’t like the labeling, because he felt like that marginalized people. And in his generation, it really did.
THR: How far along with the film were you when Vidal died on July 31, 2012?
Wrathall: We were editing by the time he passed away. He’d seen a lot of the rushes of the film, but he hadn’t seen the edit. I wanted to show him when I was ready. But, unfortunately, that opportunity didn’t come. The last time I interviewed him was in 2011 in the red chair in that scene at the end. He was sharp up until the last interview.
For me, as a filmmaker, it was a great opportunity to make a film that I feel could reach a younger generation, not just an old generation, and enable people to be aware of how important his kind of critical thinking was. And to be aware of what’s going on in the media, read between the lines and learn from someone like Gore and be inspired by someone like that.
'Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia' had its world premiere last week at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.